W1W1EN I WAS a medical student in the 9705 and the time came to deliver my first baby, I was naturally apprehensive despite the presence of a large, friendly and very experienced West Indian midwife who guided me at every step.
Luckily everything went smoothly, or as smoothly as these things can go, until the moment of the delivery itself when the midwife exclaimed in a loud voice: "Goodness, gracious me!" For a moment I was alarmed. What could she mean? What was so unusual about this baby to elicit such a reaction? I need not have worried as I soon realised, after we had done a few more deliveries together, that this was the way she greeted every baby on its arrival into the world. She seemed genuinely astonished at the wonder of each and every new-born child.
For some reason, the echoes of "Goodness, gracious me" stayed with me and, a decade later, I had a rather similar reaction. I cannot recall the precise reason for taking down from my bookshelf the embryology textbook from my student days but it was presumably to check some fact or other.
I had always thought embryology to be a rather dreary subject which, for examination purposes, had required little more than the memorisation of the several stages of development and when they occurred. But now, rereading my text book, somehow everything appeared in a very different light, suffused as it were by a sense of ineffable mystery.
How do some cells know to go off to form the placenta while the remainder in a dazzling display of origami reorganise themselves into a three-dimensional structure with a front and a back, a left and a right side? What forces could create from within the foetus the organs and the limbs, the nerves and blood vessels? Like niy midwife of fond memory I could only mutter "Goodness, gracious me!"
TOUGH THE facts of embryology had not changed, my interpretation certainly had but why? Embryology, like all the biological sciences is, primarily descriptive recording the changes in the early embryo as they are seen down the microscope. But, with greater intellectual maturity, one naturally wants to know more, in particular the mechanisms by which these events occur. But here one comes up against a hard core of inscrutability, the realisation that not only are these things unknown, but their complexity is such that they are unknowable.
This fundamental limitation of biology struck me as a revelation and soon it seemed that everywhere I looked, whatever aspect of biology I examined, at its centre lay the same hard core of inscrutability.
How different from the common belief encouraged by the staggering success of science in the 20th century that the steady accumulation of scientific knowledge is continually narrowing the gaps in our understanding of the natural world and that, inevitably, at some undefined moment in the future all will become clear. For scientists this must be the case, for the alternative, that perhaps some things may be inexplicable introduces an element of metaphysics which is unacceptable to the rational mind.
But any dispassionate interpretation of developments in biology particularly over the past 40 years, suggest the reverse has happened the more we learn, the wider the gaps in our knowledge have become. Whereas, in the past, the cell was perceived as simply the building block of nature, now everything about it its information systems, its ability to make proteins and renew itself have been found to be dauntingly complex.
This clearly poses a challenge to the scientific world view or at least the rationalistic atheistic scientism that has been, and continues to be so, influential.
MLICHAEL BEHE, Professor of Chemistry at ehigh University in Pennsylvania and a Catholic masterfully presents the argument in a recent book, Darwin's Black Box. For Behe the only possible interpretation of biological systems is that beyond a certain point they become "irreducibly complex" as they involve the interaction of too many different and highly complex components, each of which by itself can serve no purpose.
Consider. for example, the blood clotting system. The blood, as it circulates through the veins and arteries, must have two quite contradictory properties. Clearly it must be fluid if it is to flow but it must also have the ability to form a clot instantaneously as otherwise the most trivial of cuts would cause death from exsanguination.
The clot material is called fibrinogen because it makes the fibre that forms the clot. First, however, fibrinogen which floats around dissolved in the blood must be changed into its active form, fibrin, by another protein called thrombin. But before this can happen thrombin must itself be transformed from its inactive form, prothrombin, by another factor, and that factor by another factor and back and back the cascade goes involving 28 separate proteins and enzymes.
The essence of this system is one of weights and balances in which each component acts as a check on another and is itself checked in turn. All 28 factors are necessary as if just one is missing as occurs in haemophilia the ability to clot is lost. Thus the clotting system could not have emerged from anything simpler, because anything simpler would simply not have worked.
Behe poses the question as to what the chances are of the many genes involved in the production of these clotting factors coming together in the way they do. "Such an event would not be expected to happen even if the universe's ten billion year life were compressed into a single second and relived every second for ten billion years." The precise numbers are not "irreducible complexity". The only alternative to such improbability is that the clotting system must have been designed or created hence there must be a designer.
Behe's writing is lucid, its scientific content fully referenced and his logic unassailable. I wrote to express my appreciation and he kindly replied enclosing, at my request, the reviews of his book as I was interested to gauge the response of the scientific community.
His arguments are variously dismissed as a "blind alley", "a confusing and untestable farrago of contradictory ideas" and "muddled, ignorant and unfairly slanted attacks on scientific explanations". As Behe's book is none of these things such a vituperative and defensive reaction offers an interesting commentary on just how fragile scientism has become.
The intellectual tide is turning and soon, perhaps, it will become commonplace to reflect on the ineffable mysteries of the natural world and exclaim "Goodness, gracious me!"